Tears for Mt. St. Agnes

A blue star with eight points and eight birds flying inward toward the small Celtic cross at its center.It must have been about a dozen years ago, when I was just discovering my calling for theology. It was late one night, and I was surfing the search engines, as you do, going from one link to another, exploring.

And I found a link to the Mount Saint Agnes Theological Center for Women. And I started to cry.

I clicked on the link, and found it was only a mile from where I work, and cried harder.

I couldn’t believe it. There was a place for me! There was a place for me and for women like me. I was all alone in my living room, a Catholic woman raised in a church where theology was for experts and experts were clergy and clergy were men. Where those men were telling me that we couldn’t, mustn’t, use feminine language for God, ever, and that we had to say “men” to mean “people” if it said “men” in the sacramentary. But I wasn’t alone any more: there were women like me.

There was a place for women to come together and engage in theology, in God-talk, without any men in the room who might be offended or disapproving or scandalized if we named God however we experienced God and related to God. A place where women could learn from other women, where the experts were women, so women could see that we could be experts, too. A place for women to meet, talk, study, pray, and eat together, in a domestic space, the traditional women’s space. A place where we could be women doing theology, not just women as theologians, but theologians as women.

I couldn’t believe it. I sent them a check right away – I was just so grateful that they existed. I signed up for one of their programs the next semester, and one or two after that. Through MSA I encountered James Alison, whose work has been so influential and helpful to me. Through an MSA joint presentation, I discovered the Institute for Christian-Jewish Studies; and at an ICJS course I met someone who’d recently graduated from the EI, and that’s how I found my school. Once I was enrolled in my graduate program, I couldn’t get to MSA very often – I just didn’t have time. But I always looked over the course offerings, always checked to see if there was perhaps just one thing, a talk or a prayer service or a dinner and movie night, that I could squeeze in.

And today, I’m crying again. Because the Mount Saint Agnes Theological Center for Women has announced this week that it will be closing its doors in November.

This is a great loss for me personally. MSA is where I took my first baby steps in theology; I still keep and occasionally refer to my notes from courses I took there. Its women have been a source of both intellectual and emotional support to me over the years, and its library of feminist theology has made material available to me that I could not easily obtain elsewhere. More than that, its very existence created a “safe space” for me as a woman doing theology: even though I rarely visited, I knew it was there, and that mattered.

Reflecting on the announcement, I noticed that the Center was founded “to act in solidarity with women seeking fullness of life and equality in church and society.” And I wonder… maybe there aren’t any more women like me, like I was twelve years ago, feeling as if theology wasn’t supposed to be for me. Maybe there has been enough visible progress made in church and society that the younger women don’t feel the need for support as women in theology — after all, there are women ministers these days, and women theologians whose work makes the news. I understand that one of the reasons behind the decision was that the women who participate in programs at the Center are getting older, and there is no influx of younger women. Maybe this was a ministry in response to a particular moment in time, and that time has passed.

Nevertheless, its closing is a loss, to the women it has served and to the community. I invite you to explore the resources available on the website, and take the house tour to see the beautiful space that has welcomed women for study, prayer, and community.

And if you’re a woman in the Baltimore area, there’s one last chance to participate – there are still some fall programs that will be offered before the Center closes its doors in November.

Please join me and Sr. Helen Marie Burns, RSM, chair of the Board of Directors, in “prayers of thanksgiving [to] celebrate the blessing of this ministry and all that it has accomplished.” And please pray, too, for all the women of MSA, for consolation in their loss, and for the continuing, sustaining presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

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3 Responses to Tears for Mt. St. Agnes

  1. Thank you for this marvelous testimony to the mission and to the reality of our theological center for women. The Sisters of Mercy and an anonymous donor took a chance on this adventure many years ago. To them, and to all those who have participated in programs and supported us in manifold ways, I give thanks. If there is a philanthropist out there who wants to make a gift to the church through the theological education of women, do get in touch!

    Mary Aquin O’Neill, RSM, Ph.D., Founder of Mount Saint Agnes Theological Center for Women

  2. Mary Ryan says:

    Hello Sr Mary Aquin O’Neill, like this woman-person who wrote this in 2013, I too in my internet trawling came across your site and read about your vision for women’s theological education and how it unfolded. I am wondering now that you has to move you are continuing the work.

    I am a South African and ordained in the Roman Catholic Womenpriest movement last year. I share your vision for theologically trained women, developed in community in South Africa and would love to reflect with you about this.

    With my sincere appreciation for what you have achieved
    Mary Ryan

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